Fiction Fiction 2008

Stand By Me

What Jarrat had in his life were sorrow, stubbornness, silence, and work. So when his sons needed him most, their daddy didn’t have much to offer.

The grass and weeds overgrew the paths across the hollow. The boys somehow knew better than to go over there where their mother was gone and their daddy was living by himself. It took them a while to go back there, even with me.

Jarrat did a fair job of batching. He kept the house clean, and he didn’t change anything. He sort of religiously kept everything the way Lettie had fixed it. But as time went on, things changed in spite of him. He got busy and forgot to water the potted plants, and they died. And then gradually the other little things that had made it a woman’s house wore out, or got lost, or broke. Finally it took on the bare, accidental look of the house of a man who would rather be outdoors, and then only Jarrat’s thoughts and memories were there to remind him of Lettie.

Or so I guess. As I say, there was a lot about Jarrat that nobody in this world was ever going to know. I was worrying about him, which I hadn’t ever done before, and I was going to worry about him for the rest of his life. I began to feel a little guilty about him, too. I had a lady friend, and by and by we began to come to an understanding. When I wanted company, I had friends. When I didn’t want company, I had the woods and the creeks and the river. I had a good johnboat for fishing, and always a good hound or two or three.

Jarrat didn’t have any of those things, not that he wanted them. In his dealings with other people he was strictly honest, I was always proud of him for that, and he was friendly enough. But he didn’t deal with other people except when he had to. He was freer than you might have thought with acts of kindness when he knew somebody needed help. But he didn’t want kindness for himself, though of course he needed it. He didn’t want to be caught needing it.

After Lettie died, he wasn’t the man he was before. He got like an old terrapin. He might come out of his shell now and again to say something beyond what the day’s work required: “Hello,” maybe, or he would compliment the weather. But if you got too close, he’d draw in again. Only sometimes, when he thought he was by himself, you’d catch him standing still, gazing nowhere.

What I know for sure he had in his life were sorrow, stubbornness, silence, and work. Work was his consolation, surely, just because it was always there to do and because he was so good at it. He had, I reckon, a gift for it. He loved the problems and the difficulties. He never hesitated about what to do. He never mislaid a lick. And half of his gift, if that was what it was, was endurance. He was swift and tough. When you tied in with him for a day’s work, you had better have your ass in gear. Work was a fever with him. Anybody who loved it as much as he did didn’t need to fish.

So when Tom and Nathan needed him the most, their daddy didn’t have much to offer. He wanted them around, he would watch over them when they were with us at work, he would correct and caution them when they needed it, but how could he console them when he couldn’t console himself?

They were just little old boys. They needed their mother, was who they needed. But they didn’t have her, and so they needed me. Sometimes I’d find one or the other of them off somewhere by himself, all sorrowful and little and lost, and there’d be nothing to do but try to mother him, just pick him up and hold him tight and carry him around a while. Their daddy couldn’t do it, and it was up to me.

I would make them laugh. It usually wasn’t too hard. Nathan thought I was the funniest thing on record anyhow, and sometimes he would laugh at me even when I was serious. But I would sing,

Turkey in the straw settin’ on a log
All pooched out like a big bullfrog.
Poked him in the ass with a number nine wire
And down he went like an old flat tire.

I would sing,

Stuck my toe in a woodpecker hole,
In a woodpecker hole, in a woodpecker hole.
Woodpecker, he said, “Damn your soul,
Take it out, take it out, take it out!”

I would sing one of them or some other one, and dance a few steps, raising a dust, and Nathan would get so tickled he couldn’t stand up. Tom would try to hold his dignity, like an older brother, but he would be ready to bust; all you had to do was poke him in the short ribs, and down he would go, too. What raising they got, they got mainly from their grandma and me. It was ours to do if anybody was going to do it, and somehow we got them raised.

To spare Grandma, and when they were out of school, we kept the boys at work with us. That way they learned to work. They played at it, and while they were playing at it they were doing it. And they were helping, too. We generally had a use for them, and so from that time on they knew we needed them, and they were proud to be helping us make a living.

Jarrat nor Pap wouldn’t have paid them anything. Jarrat said they were working for themselves, if they worked. And Pap, poking them in the ribs to see if they would argue, and they did, said they ate more than they were worth. But I paid them 10 cents a day, adjusted to the time they actually worked. Sometimes they’d get three cents, sometimes seven. I’d figure up and pay off every Saturday. One time when I paid him all in pennies, Nathan said, “Haven’t you got any of them big white ones?”

They worked us, too. They didn’t have minds for nothing. Sometimes, if the notion hit them, they’d fartle around and pick at each other and get in the way until their daddy or grandpa would run them off. “Get the hell out of here! Go to the house!”

But they wouldn’t go to the house. They’d slip away into the woods, or go to Port William, or down to the river. And since they were careful to get back to the house by dinnertime or suppertime, nobody would ask where they’d been. Unless they got in trouble, which they sometimes did.

I worried about them. I’d say, “Boys, go to the river if you have to, but don’t go in it.” Or I’d say, “Stay out of that damned river, now. We ain’t got time to go to your funeral.”

But of course they did go in the river. They were swimming, I think, from frost to frost, just like I would have at their age. Just like I in fact did at their age.

When they were little, you could always see right through Nathan. He didn’t have any more false faces than a glass of water. Tom you couldn’t always tell about. Maybe because Nathan was coming along so close behind him, Tom needed to keep some things to himself. It did him good to think he knew some things you didn’t know. He wanted to call his life his own. He wasn’t dishonest. If you could get him to look straight at you, then you had him.

As long as they were little, there would be times when they would be needing their mother, and who would be in the gap but only me? One or the other or both of them would be sitting close to me in the evening while it was getting dark, snuggled up like a chicken to the old hen, and I would be doing all I could, and falling short. They changed me. Before, I was often just on the loose, carefree as a dog fox, head as empty as a gourd. Afterwards, it seemed like my heart was bigger inside than outside.

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Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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